Our Name is Israel
By Justin Amler
Last night I had the privilege of hearing from someone who I deem a hero of the Jewish people. I say the Jewish people and not just the State of Israel, because he was part of something that gave pride to every Jew everywhere all around the world.
I met Rami Sherman who was part of the historic mission to rescue the Jewish hostages from the Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976. Rami, who is an extremely humble man, does not consider himself a hero and says that he was simply lucky to have been part of that unit – the famed Israeli Special Forces Unit known as the “Sayeret Matkal.” But I think it is we, the Jewish people, who are the lucky ones to have had Rami serve in that unit during that particularly unique moment in history.
Rami explained to us in detail the day to day events from the beginning of the hijacking of the Air France plane on the 27th June 1976 until its conclusion one week later. Many of us know the story, but Rami brought with him a unique insight about these events from both his and Israel’s perspectives.
He explained how four hijackers, two Arabs and two Germans boarded the plane in Athens which was on a stopover during its trip to Paris from Tel Aviv. The hijackers entered the plane unchallenged, because no security existed at the airport. Then within minutes of the plane having taken off, the hijackers sprang into action taking control of the flight, led by the two Germans terrorists, one a woman who was particularly brutal towards the Jewish passengers, constantly hitting and assaulting them.
I won’t go through all the details, but they ultimately found themselves in the old terminal at Entebbe airport in Uganda – about 4000 kilometres away from Israel and ruled by the evil dictator Idi Amin who spent the last years of his life in Saudi Arabia. At this point the Jewish passengers (not just Israeli) were separated from the non-Jewish ones who were then allowed to leave. It was a traumatic time for those Jewish passengers, among them a Holocaust survivor. Barely 30 years after the Holocaust, they were once again experiencing a selection process, led by a German. Who can imagine the horror of a nightmare revisited?
To his immense credit, the captain of the Air France flight, along with his crew of 12, refused to leave the Jewish passengers alone and heroically made the decision that the fate of the Jewish hostages would mirror his own.
Meanwhile, it was a time of great distress in Israel, where the government was searching desperately for a solution to this crisis. The distance, the lack of information, the amount of hostages - it seemed impossible – and it was. And yet Israel showed once again how when in times of crisis, unity is the defining factor. The leader of the opposition Menachem Begin gave his complete and unfettered support to the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in whatever action he would take. And for that moment, there were no opposition groups. There was no dissent. There was no politics. There was only unity. One nation. One goal.
To save our people and to bring them home.
With that in mind and with the nation behind them in every way, Israel secretly planned their assault, an audacious plan that was too unreal to be considered and too unbelievable to take place – except in the safe confines of a Hollywood action movie.
As the government debated what their exact course of action should be, minister after minister spoke, each voicing their views and opinions in favour of an assault or against it, but perhaps the most poignant statement came from Shimon Peres who said simply Israel has to fight. He then said something that I believe holds true not just to this day, but for all days. He said we must “remind every Jew in this world, of the importance of Israel’s existence.”
Meanwhile, while the debate raged on, a tired and tense, but very focussed and very clear Yoni Netanyahu gave his final briefing to his unit, a unit that included Rami Sherman. And he told his soldiers, soldiers who were heading out a mission that defied the odds, that “it is a mission of every Jew – to help one another.”
These are words that should always be heeded, and in a way, Yoni was a modern day prophet, one who spoke with the eloquence of a poet, fought with the fierceness of a warrior, and yet held a sense of hope and belief like that of a dreamer.
The planes took off, even before the government had given the go ahead and flew for hours barely 30 metres above the Red Sea, before finally getting government approval and turning inland through Ethiopia where they were faced with a tropical storm. Then, as if God himself pulled away the clouds and the winds, the skies became clear just as the planes descended towards Entebbe.
Within minutes of landing the assault was launched and less than half an hour later, the terrorists were dead, along with many Ugandan soldiers protecting the airport. Most importantly, the hostages were freed.
But sadly, 4 hostages would not be going home, 3 killed during the raid and a further one murdered in a Ugandan hospital on the orders of Idi Amin. Yoni Netanyahu, the inspirational leader, also died in the assault, but left behind a legacy that will live on forever.
However, despite the sadness, over 100 Jews were saved that day, and what image could possibly be more powerful that a modern day Jewish Army rescuing Jews when barely 30 years earlier, these same Jews were perishing in death camps while many in the world stood silently by.
Just fifty minutes after the first plane landed, it took off again to begin the long journey back home to Israel, the land of the Jews.
To hear Rami describe these events in person from a firsthand perspective, was an honour for me. It was inspirational, because he was part of something that brought so much pride and so much joy to Jews around the world – and still does to this day. He, along with all those involved, makes them heroes to me, not just for what they did on the ground, but for what they made me feel in my heart. The spirit of Israel swept through the entire world that day, touching Jews everywhere, replacing the fear in their hearts with an abundance of joy and causing their souls to soar in delight among the heavens.
Today the world is cynical and people fight with each other constantly about their petty politics. But an operation like this elevates us to levels far above the pettiness below. It gives us a higher meaning about the world we live in. Instead of showing the worst of us, it showed the best of us and just how much we can shine. It showed us how hope is never lost and how belief in ideals and the values we hold can be more powerful than the strongest, darkest forces who are constantly trying to tear us down.
In July 1976 Jews were once again selected and separated, because they were Jews, but this time, unlike before we had an army to defend us, to save us, to rescue us. And no longer would Jews whose names were lost be taken from this world without so much as a muted protest or a quiet muttering of discontent.
This time the world would know our name…
And our name is Israel.
Justin Amler is a South African born, Melbourne based columnist who has lived in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia and is currently working in the Information Technology industry. He is a regular contributor to international publications, including the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. Justin is also a valued Israel Forever blogger, writing about his connection to the Jewish state. You can reach Justin on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.